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Category results for 'language'.

Jac asks: Which word is stressed in the sentence "are you okay?" 

Hi Jac,

There is not a single answer to your question; which word is stressed depends on the context. It could be any of the three words, depending on the situation.

Situation #1

I'm hanging out with two friends - Joe and Moe. Joe looks really sad, so Moe says, "Are you okay?". Joe says, "Oh yes, I'm fine." But then, after Moe leaves, Joe tells me about all the horrible things that's been happening in his life. After listening to him for a few minutes, I say, "ARE you okay?" I emphasize the word 'ARE', because Joe has previously said that he is okay, and my emphasis on that word indicates that I doubt his statement about being okay.

Situation #2

Now Moe and I are in a car, and we get into a fender-bender. Moe bangs his head against the windshield, and then he looks at me and says, "Are you okay?" I reply that I'm fine, and then say, "Are YOU okay?" This time I emphasize 'YOU' because I'm thinking that I'm not the one we should be worrying about, it's Moe. It's a way of saying, "Never mind about me - you're the one we should be worrying about!"

Situation #3

This is probably the most common situation; the word 'okay' will have a natural upward inflection/stress because the sentence is a question. For a situation where the word 'okay' gets extra stress, imagine that Joe is telling me about all the terrible things that he's gone through, and I ask, "Are you OKAY?"  (I'd be more likely to add the word 'but': "But are you OKAY?"). Emphasizing the word 'OKAY' in this situation might be a way of implying that I have doubts whether he's handling the situations in a healthy way.

There are a lot of sentences that can be stressed in different ways depending on the context. In most cases, we do it automatically without stopping to think about how we're stressing the words!

Thanks for the question, Jac.

Martha asks, "Where does the phrase 'By the Seat of your Pants' come from?"

Well, Martha, I didn't know the answer to this one, so I checked a few different sources, and was able to piece together what seems like a reasonable explanation.

The one thing that all the sources agree on is that it's an old aviation expression. That makes sense, because the full phrase is typically "flying by the seat of your pants," even when the expression is being used in other contexts. For example, if you're playing volleyball, and you don't know how to serve, you wouldn't (probably) say "serving by the seat of my pants" you would still say "flying by the seat of my pants" even though you're not actually flying.

So where does this expression come from? What does it mean to "fly by the seat of your pants?"

Well, in the early days of aviation, the instruments for determining how fast you're going, what angle you're flying at, etc, were not very sophisticated, and in some cases either weren't installed in a plane, or malfunctioned in mid-flight. If that happened, you had to, in an almost literal sense, fly by the seat of your pants.

How would you know if your plane was declined from horizontal? Your "seat" started sliding forward in the pilot's chair. If you felt like you were going to land butt first on the floor, that was a pretty good indicator that you were on a pretty steep descent. Similarly, if you felt like your backside was getting pushed backward, it's a good bet that you're ascending.

What about banking? Well, if you've studied circular motion (or if you've just sat in a car taking a corner quickly!) you know that when the chair you're sitting in takes a corner, your body has a tendency to keep going in a straight line, until you start pressing up against the door, or the side of the chair. So if the plane is banking, you'll feel it in the seat of your pants, because you'll start sliding sideways in the chair.

So pilots who were very experienced could successfully fly a non-instrumented plane based solely on how their derriere was situated in the pilot's chair!

Today, it has taken a more idiomatic meaning. It simply means to do something without planning or organizing, or improvise. To put it another way, it's the same as "winging it," which - interestingly - is not an aviation metaphor. It's a theatrical metaphor, meaning that the person was doing last minute practicing in the stage wings (the offstage area where people waited before performing).

Flying by the seat of your pants. Winging it. Both mean to improvise, but they have vastly different origins!

Deepak from Kanpur, India, asks the following question (edited for clarity):

In the sentence "I am a good writer," how does the meaning change based on which word you emphasize?

Well, Deepak, that's a great question! It turns out that you could say this sentence in several different ways, and each way of emphasizing the words gives a slight tweak to the meaning. To answer you, I'll mark the word that's emphasized by marking it off with asterisks. Beneath each sentence, I'll provide an explanation. In each case, the emphasis implies that the speaker is, in some way, disagreeing with what a previous speaker has said.

*I* am a good writer.
This sentence, with the emphasis on the subject, suggests that someone has previously made a statement implying that it was someone else who is a good writer. For example, if someone is comparing you to Mark, and says that Mark is a good writer, you would emphasize "I" to indicate that you're disagreeing with their conclusion is wrong about which of you is a good writer.

I *am* a good writer.
In this case, it's the verb you are emphasizing. What's the opposite of being a good writer? NOT being a good writer. So presumably, someone just told you that you are not a good writer, so you emphasize "am" in order to disagree with them.

I am *a* good writer.
Emphasizing an indefinite article like "a" is a strange choice under most circumstances, but I can imagine a circumstance where you might do that. You have just published your first novel, and an adoring (and maybe slightly crazy) fan says to you that you are "THE good writer." In other words, suggesting (hyperbolically) that you are the only good writer in the whole world. You disagree with that designation, and graciously point out to your fan that you are only one of many good writers.

I am a *good* writer.
Here you emphasized an adjective. So maybe someone just used a different adjective to describe your writing skills. Maybe they said, "You're a fantastic writer," and you wanted to dampen their enthusiasm by indicating that you're just good, but not fantastic. Or maybe they said you're a lousy writer, and you want to defend your skills by saying that you're a good writer.

I am a good *writer*.
In this case, it's likely that someone said that you're good at something else. Maybe they thought you illustrate children's books, when in reality you write them. Or maybe they thought you were a carpenter, but you're actually not. However, the fact that your sentence has the word "good" in it, suggests that the person speaking thought you were good at whatever it was that they thought you do. "You're a good illustrator." "No, I'm a good WRITER." 

And there you have it - a five word sentence, with five different ways of emphasizing the words! Each one has a slightly different meaning, because each one is a response to a slightly different situation. And if there is no surrounding context - if you were just announcing this into the silence - you probably wouldn't emphasize any of the words.

Red, from Syria, asks, "How can I become better in knowing the differences between stressed and unstressed syllables beside practice ? Is there a secret I could use to seperate between stressed and unstressed syllables ? Thank you"

Hi Red, this is a tricky question, because the answer is different for every language. I'm going to hope that, since you're not from an English-speaking country, and you're writing to someone who answers questions in English, you want an answer about the English language. English is a very unpredictable language. Some languages, like Spanish, have very hard-and-fast rules for defining which syllable receives the stress (accent). English...not so much. But there are still some guidelines that will help you out. I'll cover a few here to get you started.

  1. In general, we consider every English word to have one accented syllable. However, if it's a lengthy word, we might have syllables with a "secondary" stress. For example, we might say that the word "dodecahedron" has its stress on the syllable "dec" and a secondary stress on "hed." Notice that the pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables is an alternating pattern: do-DEC-a-HED-ron. This alternating pattern is quite common.
  2. If a word has either a prefix or a suffix, it's unlikely that the accent falls on the either the prefix or suffix. For example, in the word "unlikely," "un" is a prefix and "ly" is a suffix, and both are unaccented. This leaves us with the inevitable conclusion that "like" is the accented syllable. Lest you think that's a guaranteed rule, just scan through this paragraph, and you'll find a counter-example: "prefix" is pronounced "PRE-fix," not "pre-FIX."
  3. When in doubt, find the first syllable that isn't a prefix, and give that one the accent. That's also not a hard-and-fast rule, for sure, but it'll be correct more often than it's not. Consider the word "unpredictable" in the first paragraph of my response. "Un" and "pre" are prefixes, so we put the stress on "dict": "un-pre-DICT-able."
  4. Some words have different pronunciations depending on the way the word is used. For example, the word "refund" can mean "an amount of money returned" or "to return some money." The first one (a noun) is "RE-fund" and the second (a verb) is "re-FUND." When faced with this sort of word, the safest guess is to assume that the noun has the first syllable stressed (even if, as is the case here, the first syllable is a prefix), and the verb has the next syllable stressed.
  5. There are a few other rules you'll figure out as you go along, and the more you hear English spoken, the more you'll intuitively grasp them. For example, if you run into a word that ends with "ation," it's very likely that the penultimate syllable will have either the stress or the secondary stress, which will help you work out how to pronounce the word. Examples: pro-NUN-ci-A-tion, in-TER-pret-A-tion, etc.

Hopefully this will be helpful to you in learning better pronunciation. Of course, there is no substitute for spending time talking with native speakers and picking up their speech patterns! Thanks for your question, Red.


"Can the context of a word change the way its syllables are stressed/unstressed? Myra"

Yes, Myra, the context can definitely change the way we stress the syllables. Here's a simple example:

"I would never desert you in the desert."

How did you stress the syllables in the word "desert"? Hopefully, the first time the word showed up, you pronounced it "de-SERT," with the stress (accent) on the second syllable. But what about the second appearance of the word? You didn't pronounce it the same way, did you? You pronounced it "DES-ert," with the accent on the first syllable.

The difference, of course, is that even though they are spelled the same, these are two quite different words. One of them is a verb, that means to abandon, and the second is a noun -- a dry and barren landscape.

There are occasions when a single word functions as either a noun or an adjective, depending on the context, and the difference in part of speech is reflected in the way it is pronounced. For example, consider the word "arithmetic." Is it a noun? Or is it an adjective? It actually could be either, depending on the context.

"I really enjoy studying arithmetic."

In this case, "arithmetic" is a noun, a branch of mathematics, and we pronounce it "a-RITH-me-TIC," with the primary accent on RITH, and a secondary accent on TIC.

"I really enjoyed studying an arithmetic sequence."

In this case, "arithmetic" is an adjective rather than a noun; it is describing a type of sequence. As an adjective, the word is pronounced "A-rith-ME-tic," with the stresses inverted from the noun pronunciation.

Can you think of other words that have different pronunciations depending on the context?

Incidentally, there's another way that context can affect how syllables are stressed. Sometimes, the innate rhythm of a phrase we're saying can lead to slight variations in accent. I emphasize here the word slight.

Here's one example. I mentioned the word "sequence" above; let's take that word and make it plural: "sequences." If you pronounce this word, you will likely pronounce it like this: "SEQ-uenc-es," with primary stress on the first syllable, and no secondary stress. I checked a phonetic spelling in an online dictionary, and that is exactly what it showed.

So now let's take the phrase "arithmetic sequence" and make it plural: "arithmetic sequences."

How do you pronounce this? The answer (I love combining math and poetry) is that you pronounce it iambically, which means you pronounce it with alternating unstressed and stressed syllables: "A-rith-Met-ic SEQ-uenc-ES."

Your sense of rhythm almost begs you to put a secondary stress on that final syllable. Now, as I said, it's very slight, and maybe you don't add that extra stress yourself, but I can tell you, as a math teacher, I hear that extra accent all the time. The same is true for the phrase "geometric sequences."

The same thing happens (for essentially the same reason) when we read poetry. Say the word "happy" and ask yourself where the stress is. Presumably you said that it comes on the first syllable: "HAPP-y."

But now read these very familiar lines of poetry: 

But I heard him exclaim, 'ere he drove out of sight,
"Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good night!"

Did you notice what happened? Your brain subconsciously (or maybe consciously) got so wrapped up in the rhythm of unstressed/unstressed/STRESSED over and over again that you really didn't give stress to either syllable of "happy," waiting instead to punch the first syllable of "Christmas."

In fact, that's precisely what the author intended you to do; it is a form of poetry called "anapestic tetrameter," in which every stressed syllable is preceded by two unstressed syllables. And those two unstressed syllables are the word "happy."

Related post: How to recognize stressed and unstressed syllables.

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